A game of brinkmanship may be underway between Iran and the United States but it appears the former has been careful to avoid the wrath of President Donald Trump, even as it fired more than a dozen missiles at military bases in Iraq where U.S. personnel are housed. In a Jan. 8 televised address to the nation, the president struck a measured tone. Signaling a ratcheting up of economic sanctions, Trump nevertheless avoided saying anything that could have been taken as threatening or incendiary.
The president’s message was not a hopeful one; it was not by any means a Kumbaya moment. However, a glimpse of one possible better future for Iran was offered. After urging the abandonment of the soon-to-expire JCPOA, commonly known as “the Iran deal,” Trump suggested a new agreement should be made. “We must also make a deal that allows Iran to thrive and prosper,” the president said, “and take advantage of its enormous untapped potential. Iran can be a great country.”
Already crippled by U.S. sanctions, the Iranian regime now faces “additional punishing economic sanctions,” which, Trump vowed, “will remain until Iran changes its behavior.” Widespread domestic unrest will only increase as a result, and, while the Trump administration publicly claims it is not working toward regime change in Iran, the massive financial pressure being applied by the U.S. is, at some point, quite likely to hasten the fall of the ruling mullahs.
There were one or two symbolic but noteworthy aspects to the president’s address: It was not delivered from behind the desk in the Oval Office, which would have signaled a far graver intention, and the president was not surrounded by uniformed military officers. Deliberately, an extremely non-confrontational tone was struck, even though Trump’s opening statement – even before he said “good morning” – was unequivocal:
“As long as I’m president of the United States, Iran will never be allowed to have a nuclear weapon.”
A Swipe at Obama
Almost uncharacteristically, for an often unfiltered commander in chief, there was no hint of admonishment for Trump’s political opponents and no gloating over the fact that Iran’s missiles did not inflict any casualties – which many suspect may have been by design, as Iran sought to save face after a U.S. drone strike killed one of its most powerful military commanders. Also, there was nothing that could have been interpreted as a direct threat of additional military action.
The president’s harshest criticism, though, was reserved for his predecessor: Alluding to the Obama administration’s bizarre delivery, in the dead of night, of pallets of cash to the Iranian regime, Trump said: “The missiles fired last night at us and our allies were paid for with the funds made available by the last administration.”
Whether Trump’s words will have any real effect on Iran’s behavior, going forward, is debatable but for the time being, at least, they gave both nations the opportunity to step back from what appeared to be the brink of a major military confrontation.
Read more from Graham J Noble.